5 Quick Lessons from the First Presidential Debate 2012
I’m taking a short break from my discussion of virtual communications to talk about the debates. The received wisdom is that President Obama lost the debate and former Governor Romney won; 2/3rds of Americans polled thought so, and the commentators certainly did. So what follows is a contrarian view. My belief watching the debate was that all 3 participants lost, heavily – including Jim Lehrer, who was unable to function very well as a moderator and should not be asked back.
I’m giving my contrarian view in the form of 5 quick lessons from the debate in order to keep the tone as positive as possible.
1. Never Stand on One Leg when You Debate. Teenagers stand on one leg when they know they’re in trouble, they want to be somewhere else, or they’re uncertain about something. None of those messages is good to telegraph as a debater. Why, then, did President Obama stand on one leg repeatedly throughout the debate? The most charitable explanation is that he wished he were having an anniversary with Michelle instead of spending the 90 minutes of quality communing with Governor Romney, but next time he should stand squarely on both legs whether it’s his birthday and he’d rather be bowling, or in the Situation Room or with Michelle.
2. If You’re Going to Be Wonky, then Embrace Your Wonkiness Fully. Both of the candidates flung numbers around with abandon, but never stopped long enough to tell us the full story. As a result, we got Wonky Lite – the worst possible combination of generalization and detail. We had no way of knowing what was behind the endless assertions unless we were as wonky as the candidates. This is a very bad way of talking to a general audience.
Take one example – the $5 trillion tax cut that President Obama accused Governor Romney of piling on top of President Bush’s tax cuts that added so much to the deficit before President Obama got in office. Obama said, “You can’t make the math add up,” and Romney said, “Yes I can,” and we were stuck. Because neither candidate would go further into the story behind the number, we had no way of evaluating either claim.
Both candidates need practice – lots of practice – at being able to tell a coherent story with just enough detail. Flinging an accusation with one number just sounds like lying to a jaded audience, who need to hear the full story. In this case, the full story is interesting. Romney has promised $5 trillion in tax cuts, and he hasn’t offered specifics about how he’ll pay for them (and still balance the budget). A little digging would start an interesting discussion worth having about whether or not there is enough in “loopholes and deductions” to make up that $5 trillion.
3. Don’t Fake Your Smile. Governor Romney did a much better job than President Obama did both in attacking and parrying Obama’s attacks. But whenever he finished one of his sallies, he pulled back into a fake, half-smile that conveyed the impression that he, too, would rather be somewhere else. About half-way through the debate, he started to sweat noticeably. All of that, coupled with his nasal, whiny voice, gave the impression of a petulant tycoon who’d rather be on the golf course. It’s OK to take the debates seriously, so don’t force the smile. Smile – genuinely – when you have reason to do so.
4. If You’re Going to Debate, then Debate. Perhaps President Obama was tired, or perhaps the pundits are right and he was out of practice, but whatever the cause, he seemed only half-present. It takes an effort of will, but it’s an important one. When you’re in front of an audience, be wholly and completely there for that audience. For those few minutes, nothing else matters.
5. Remember Who Your Audience Is. President Reagan was no rocket scientist, but he was an effective debater, because he remembered that the important other person in the room was not his opponent, but the audience. He told stories, marshaled facts in support of his claims that government was too big and small business needed a break, and stayed focused on middle class Americans. The candidates last night spoke to their fellow policy wonks and forgot that most Americans don’t identify either with Governor Romney’s patronizing “poor,” or President Obama’s bootstrapped bank-vice-presidential “grandmother.”